Tutorial Review: ZBrush for Absolute Beginners

Tutorial / 09 April 2020

Typically, I wouldn't show tutorial work because it's a bit paint-by-numbers: opportunities to show your creativity, originality, problem solving, and style are limited. However, I like how this turned out (and I took those chances to inject a bit of myself into it, so it's not entirely a replica). Most importantly, there's much I loved about and learned from the course. Instructor Nikolay Naydenov did a lot of things well that I found missing from or frustrating about other lessons, so I wanted to review it.

Tutorial by Nikolay Naydenov:

Original concept by Bu Zhou:

This is one of the best tutorials I've ever encountered, and I've watched a good number of them! Specifically for ZBrush, I've followed videos by Flipped Normals, Maria Panfilova, Zhelong Xu, Tyler Smith, Danny Mac, Follygon, Michael Pavlovich, and Pixologic's own ZClassroom and #AskZBrush series, among others. (A secret: some of these are oddly soothing and I've fallen asleep to those playlists many a night.) I feel a bit embarrassed listing so many, as if I should be an expert by now — far from it.

But I'm not totally new to ZBrush either: I've completed a few sculpts and fully-realized artworks, and even wrote my own (free!) mini-tutorial: ZBrush to Cinema 4D & Redshift (Dealing with Displacement).

So why would I spend 30+ hours or so on a course titled "ZBrush for Absolute Beginners"?

  1. There's always something new to learn. Everyone uses tools idiosyncratically, so you might discover an interesting technique or an easier way to do something. [1.5: It was on sale on ArtStation and since we're all quarantined I don't have to feel bad about being a hermit.]

  2.  ZBrush (like most 3D software) is so feature-rich that you could work in it for years and never touch many of them. It's pretty easy to get started and sculpt, but I wanted to learn about tools and processes that I may not have discovered on my own, or that appeared daunting, and to get more comfortable with it overall.

  3. In my own projects I tend to shoot for a goal that's a bit more complex than I know how to deal with, so I struggle through them, have to learn a lot along the way, and am not always satisfied in the end. That approach has its benefits, but it's great to learn calmly, formulaically, and without a deadline!

To the point: what's so great about "ZBrush for Absolute Beginners"?

  1. It's a ZBrush tutorial that covers sculpting rather than an art lesson that happens to employ ZBrush.

    An important distinction and the most valuable aspect for me.

    Artists tend to spend a lot of time talking about art and sculpture fundamentals and why they make certain creative decisions. That's great if aimed at students who might not have been to art school or never had those lessons. But when you want to learn the software specifically, imagine that you have no idea which buttons/tools/brushes they're using or why: you're listening hoping to find out, but they keep talking about form and anatomy. Especially if you've already done your Art ABCs, it's frustrating.

    This course and Michael Pavlovich's free "ZBrush for Ideation" intro on YouTube are the only lessons I've found that are truly software-focused: they both talk through absolutely every click, button-press, and tool-change. If you're considering this tutorial, do Pavlovich's also — they complement one another well and it's best to learn from multiple people so you can get a well-rounded understanding and can make your own decisions rather than copying a single artist's habits.

  2. Nikolay talks the entire time.

    He even brings this up in one video: when you're following along with a tutorial, you're sometimes working and listening rather than watching. So if the instructor keeps talking, it's still useful to leave on in the background and rewind as needed. But if there's prolonged silence, it's pointless. Even if you're actively watching you might not understand what they're doing. It's not easy to monologue (helpfully, at that) for ~30 hours and I appreciated it.

  3. Nikolay is funny and informal.

    Sometimes the way he talks is so reminiscent of my own internal monologue when I'm working; it's funny to hear out loud and relatable. His personality makes the course enjoyable and relaxed, and it's kind of a relief to see a professional who doesn't maintain a "perfect", "marketable" facade.

  4. Nikolay is, however, a perfectionist.

    There are a number of times in the course when he'll say "ah this doesn't look good, but it's ok, we can leave it..." but then he goes back and fixes the thing! I'm so grateful for that. Oftentimes, it's a problem you might have in your own project and maybe you don't know how to fix it, so it's super helpful.

  5. Nikolay's English is good. It's the perfect English, really.

    He jokes about this a lot and it is kind of subjective: he mentions that people who aren't native English speakers tend to like or be more tolerant of his accent, especially Eastern Europeans. Maybe I'm not the most impartial reviewer, then: English is my primary language (but wasn't my first) and I'm Ukrainian. So for me his accent, sentence structure, and even the way he jokes sound familiar. But as someone who speaks and thinks in English 95% of the time, it's totally comprehensible.

  6. Nikolay chose a great project.

    This character was a lot of fun to make. The original design is simple enough that it didn't feel overwhelming but complex enough to cover variety of techniques (like hard-surface modeling, cloth, and basic posing), and "rough" enough to allow some room for creative interpretation.

This tutorial is definitely worthwhile even if you're not an "absolute beginner". I recommend it alongside other resources like Michael Pavlovich's "ZBrush for Ideation" and Pixologic's #AskZBrush.

#NotAnAd: the above is entirely my own opinion, volunteered freely. Tutorials mentioned are free or I purchased them myself.